A More Thoughtful Way to Go
Florence and Dawes Take the High Road on Lovely New Records

I think I’ve been waiting for the anger.

Ever since November 2016, I’ve been looking to art (as I always do) as a way of figuring out how to cope with the world and what it has become. I’ve spent a lot of that intervening time feeling helpless and angry, and I think I’ve been expecting the music made during the Trump era to feel similarly helpless and angry. Marillion’s FEAR remains the bleakest and most forthright piece of work about this worldwide wave of hatred, and I think I’ve been waiting for more like it.

But with rare exceptions, like Ministry’s juvenile AmeriKKKant, the anger just hasn’t been as prevalent as I thought it would be. Instead, I think we’re seeing a different angle of the Trump phenomenon: our artists have grown thoughtful and contemplative. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer leads this pack – it’s a phenomenally well-considered set of songs about not allowing prejudice and oppression to define you or hold you back. It feels like exactly the kind of record we need now, defiant and celebratory, but in a beautifully thoughtful way.

We’ve since had albums by Frank Turner and Darlingside and others that have approached Trumpworld with graceful reflection and a sense that we can all be better, that we can all do better than this. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the new trend: albums that try to make sense of our dark times, ones that slowly work their way toward shining a light.

I think it’s possible to be optimistic these days, but only if you don’t really see what’s going on, or let it affect you. That’s not what I’m talking about here. These are albums by very aware artists, and instead of miring in muck or lashing out, they have decided to work through their pain in song, and share their contemplation and encouragement.

Case in point: From the first song of Florence and the Machine’s new album High as Hope, it feels different. Florence Welch is well known for building huge songs out of heartbreak, for crafting anthems that build and crest like waves. Her first three albums have all been stirring, massive affairs, so when High as Hope begins with the gentle, insistent “June,” you know something’s up. “June” is a song of encouragement for the LGBTQ community – June is Pride month, and Florence sings about the day of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and about living in a world that despises you for who you are. “Hold on to each other,” she sings in that powerhouse voice as the music finally reaches a crescendo.

Most of High as Hope follows suit. It is Welch’s most subdued record, tackling personal issues and extrapolating them out into messages of strength for the world at large. “Hunger” is deeply intimate, despite its galloping beat and bright piano – it finds Welch admitting to her eating disorder, and using her hunger as a metaphor for the emptiness inside us all. It’s the closest thing here to a pop single, and it’s uncommonly powerful. “Big God” finds Welch looking to give her worries and inner turmoil to a higher power as she suffers through a breakup. “Patricia” is dedicated to Patti Smith, but talks about toxic masculinity and the Me Too movement.

I’m more than fond of “Grace,” a song named after Welch’s sister. It’s a specific song: “I’m sorry I ruined your birthday,” Welch sings at the start, and she uses the song’s gorgeous chorus as a way of apologizing and letting her sister know how much she is loved. But it feels universal, this song. It’s absurd that it does – this is very clearly a letter written from one person to another, meant for an audience of one – but it does. Its message of reconnection and enduring love makes me cry each time.

I’m also quite fond of “100 Years,” which includes Welch’s response to the direction of the world: “I believe in love, and the darker it gets, the more I do, try and fill us with your hate and we will shine a light…” It’s a deliriously empowering song, marking the 100-year anniversary of women being given the right to vote in Great Britain. With all of that, she ends the album with “No Choir,” a metatextual number about her fear that happiness will ruin her songwriting, and her full acceptance that happiness is worth that price. If this were to be the last Florence and the Machine song, it would close the book on her body of work nicely.

I have no reason to believe it is, of course, which is the best possible news. I’ve been a Florence Welch fan since “Dog Days Are Over,” but High as Hope is my hands-down favorite of her records. It’s obviously the product of a great deal of thought about how to respond to a world gone mad, and she landed on empowerment, encouragement, hope and togetherness as the antidotes we need. High as Hope is not a joyous record, but it feels like a beautiful and difficult journey toward joy, which mirrors the tenor of the world. I hope we can get there.

I don’t think anyone was expecting anger from Dawes, the breezy Los Angeles band led by brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith. And of course, they have not delivered anger on their new album Passwords. But what they have given us is their most thoughtful record, a mostly slow and meditative work that finds the Goldsmiths surveying the wreckage of the world and trying to offer peace and hope. Happily, Passwords sidesteps every cliché that could have tripped it up, and instead goes for deep feeling, making this probably the strongest Dawes album.

Opener “Living in the Future” is the only one that cranks up the amps, and it sports a tricky, twisty riff and lyrics about wishing the world were simpler. “Stay Down” follows up on this line of thought directly – it’s a strummy acoustic ditty about hiding your head in the sand. But thankfully, that’s not the course of action the band recommends, as the next song, “Crack the Case,” makes clear. A delicate song about sitting down with one’s enemies, “Crack the Case” is the emotional core of this record: “Countless revisions of history, trying to tell us the future between each commercial break, I wanna call off the cavalry, declare no winners or losers and forgive our shared mistakes…”

From there, Passwords steps into more familiar territory with songs about love and loss, but even these are more thoughtful than the band has been in the past. “My Greatest Invention” is a well-observed tale of a man who spins stories of his lover to mask his loneliness. “Telescope” might be the best song on this record, marrying its bubbling riff to a story of an abandoned child searching for his father. The song revolves around the line “the stronger the telescope, the more stars there are,” and it’s a wonderful metaphor.

I’m a fan of the final song, “Time Flies Either Way.” It’s about working through fear and confusion and trying to accept life day by day, and the song is as gentle and breezy as Dawes has ever been. The final verse emphasizes connection between us as the way forward, and it’s lovely. I would never suggest that a band like Dawes has created a treatise on Trumpism and a healing balm for our times, but I do see evidence of a more thoughtful nature on this album, and I think that’s becoming the de facto response. I may have been waiting for the anger, but the artists I love have surprised me with a better approach, and I’m thankful for it.

Next week, I’m not sure yet. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.